Paul Haggis' Third Person is the comedy of the year. There's only one problem: It's supposed to be a deathly serious tragedy that ponders the interconnectedness of memory and expression. The film's funny bits are completely unintentional, spawned from hilariously misguided plotlines singed together by the fires of inane melodrama.
Sledgehammer cinema has been a specialty of Haggis' ever since he released 2004's Crash, an award-winning mosaic that now feels like the apex (or low point) of modern social miserablism. But Third Person takes this brand of heavy-handedness to a new level.
Chalk it up to Haggis' extensive background in screenwriting and seemingly obsessive need to appear important. After spending years writing for television, the success of Crash allowed him the opportunity to pen a few Clint Eastwood joints (including the great Million Dollar Baby) and some mediocre James Bond films starring Daniel Craig. Yet Third Person finds Haggis addressing the creative process itself for the first time, specifically the hazy overlap between perception and reality. This proves to be a scary place.
The first time we see forlorn Michael (Liam Neeson), he's hovering over a laptop in a shadowy Parisian hotel room, laboring over a new novel. Like all tortured writers, he trades puffs of a cigarette with gulps of single malt, descending further into the depths of frustration with every passing moment. Then a ghostly whisper: "Watch me." These mysterious words repeat throughout the film's multiple plotlines like Cliff's Notes reminding even the most disinterested audience member that, yes, everything is connected!
From Michael's tumultuous relationship with a young writer named Anna (Olivia Wilde) Haggis tap dances over to New York City, where a depressive mother (Mila Kunis) tries to get her life back together. Just to complete the globetrotting holy trinity, the final segment of Third Person takes place in Rome, as a sleazy businessman (Adrien Brody) gets caught up in a child-trafficking case involving the daughter of a mysterious local woman (Moran Atias). In each case, clandestine motivations eventually brim to the surface, allowing personal traumas to explode on the screen like a barrage of fireworks.
As Haggis weaves these three lame tales together in the clumsiest of ways, parallels between them begin to spell certain offenses not limited to simply poor writing or stilted acting. Something far more sinister is going on here, and it has to do with the way the filmmaker exploits emotion. Instead of showing the audience a modicum of respect, Haggis elevates interactions to decibel levels even the deaf could understand. Boy, does he like screaming matches.
Tantrums reign supreme, especially when it comes to suffering female characters (are there any other kind?). Anna fights back against Michael's narcissism with her own bipolar actions, resulting in a plot reveal so insulting that one can't imagine why the talented Wilde would even want to be associated with this character. Kunis' hot mess Julia pleads with everyone in her life to give her a second chance at raising her son, only to be rewarded by being dragged across an apartment floor by her slimy bohemian ex-husband (James Franco). Atias' Monika doesn't fare much better, forced into feeling something by a "romantic" situation that is glaringly one-sided and rote.
There's a moment late in Third Person—which opens on Friday, June 27, at Hillcrest Cinemas—where one male character smugly states, "Women have the incredible gift of denying any reality." Talk about an exclamation point for Haggis' torturous treatment of an entire gender. The great irony here is that the director himself has created a film so delusional that he mistakes cliché for profundity at every turn. Look no further than the corny montages, ill-timed slow motion and grating score that burrows into your ear canal like an unforgiving parasite. When one character yells at another, "Why do you get to play God?" it's hard not to ask the same question of Haggis.